Luc Deleu - T.O.P. Office: Orban Space
Extra City Kunsthal
15 September - 17 November 2013
Interview by Pieter Vermeulen
Extra City Kunsthal, founded in 2004, recently moved to a new venue in town, a former industrial laundrette. Alongside its exhibition programme, Extra City will accommodate other functions such as artist studios, a cinema space and a bar. Their new approach will be one of reaching out to the local community while retaining their specialist appeal within the art world.
For the inauguration of the new space, artistic director Mihnea Mircan invited Romanian artists Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor to present two films and an installation. On display in the cinema is the film essay ‘The Forgotten Space’ by another duo, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch. But the largest part of the new building is devoted to a solo show by Luc Deleu, a Belgium-born conceptual architect, urbanist and artist. Since 1970, his different activities and projects have been gathered under the name of T.O.P. Office, a studio devoted to the questioning and reinvention of urban design and architecture. With Buckminster Fuller’s idea of ‘Spaceship Earth’ in the background, Deleu has been developing an unusual, out-of-the-ordinary take on ecology, sustainability, citizenship or the public space, seen from a global perspective.
His solo exhibition ‘Orban Space’, which has already visited Stroom in The Hague earlier this year, can be seen as an ambitious attempt to give Deleu’s intriguing artistic practice the international exposure it deserves. The show has been realised in close collaboration with writers/researchers Wouter Davidts and Stefaan Vervoort.
Pieter Vermeulen: Could you explain what you mean by the concept of ‘orbanism’, and how you deal with the ambition to work on a global level as an artist’ It sounds pretty utopian at first.
Luc Deleu: In fact orbanism is all about the art of creating a better living environment on a global level. People always say that I’m an artist, but I’ve been claiming for 30 or 40 years that I’m an architect or an urbanist. The confusion probably arises from the fact that I often operate within the art world. The reason is that I experience it as a more open world than the architectural one. Architects don’t really listen: they are mostly occupied with their own buildings. My problem with other architects is that they only start thinking when they are asked to do so. I can’t possibly understand that. What I learned from being in the art world is to use different media and choose the right medium for the content that you want to get across.
But why would I be utopian’ I don’t build anything. Isn’t Frank Gehry more utopian than I am’ Or Zaha Hadid’ We think that we live in a beautiful world where everything is finished, but in fact it’s far from that. And it’s not because you rarely build anything that what you do as an architect is therefore utopian. It can also become much more utopian through the building process itself.
Wouter Davidts: This question pops up quite often. ‘Utopian’ is a label that is easily applied to a certain type of practice that aims high, in order to disqualify it from the argument that it is not connected to reality. But one could even say that practices that are blind to reality are in fact more utopian than a practice like the one of T.O.P. Office, which starts from a direct acceptance of reality, and then comes up with projects confronting that reality, rather than negating it or building only for the hyper-rich.
The distinctiveness of T.O.P. office lies in its radicalness. That’s also something we tried to exemplify in the show. Each and every project, however radical it may be, is addressing reality as it is. ‘The Unadapted City’, for instance, is not a utopian project. First of all, it’s so well designed that it could be built, it’s already a model of reality. The fact that we decided to show a scale model in the exhibition as an intermediary object, is already a certain claim to reality. I think the word ‘visionary’ might be more suitable in this context. You will see many ideas for better living, for better organisation and so forth that might sound a little absurd at first, but in fact aren’t. The idea of urban beehives, for instance, is being applied as we speak. Also fruit tree lanes are a fact. And that is definitely visionary; in the sense that these proposals project an image onto reality, but not for the image’s own sake.
Doesn’t this conception of architecture come close to a kind of social engineering or social design, too’
LD: Once we start thinking about alternative ways of living, I defend an extreme form of tolerance. Everyone lives his or her own individual life. It’s only when it becomes structured collectively that we need a lot of laws, master plans and so on. They have an actual impact on earth. But individuals don’t have any influence.
WD: One of the premises of the show is that we consider the practice of T.O.P. Office to be exemplary. When Deleu graduated as an architect, he saw architecture as a starting point to address many other things. You can address political and social issues, not by doing social work but by being very precise and conscious about your own practice. To me, ‘The Unadapted City’ has an incredible political resonance, whereas that’s not the actual aim of the project.
LD: All kinds of architecture, built or unbuilt, are political. Only the stars of the architectural world say it’s not. But designing and creating buildings for CEOs, for sheikhs or for Allah is something I consider to be very political.
WD: What has always interested me, is that someone would choose a specific means to articulate, in this case architecture and urbanism. Deleu’s practice demonstrates that you can speak about our planetary health through architecture and urban planning, through projects that by this very particular movement suddenly start addressing larger issues. For me this is exemplary, how a specific mode of articulation suddenly materialises. That’s very fascinating. By doing something in a very concentrated and focused manner, suddenly the work starts talking back to the world.
I’ve been fascinated by Deleu’s work ever since I graduated. One of the ambitions with this project was to provide the work with the international context it definitely deserves. For me the book is the medium in which we succeeded the most. We’ve opened up the practice to people who have never seen it, who are working on the other side of the globe.
So the whole exhibition is the result of a collaborative effort. Working as a team, how did you engage with the institutions, Stroom in The Hague and Extra City in Antwerp’
LD: In Antwerp it was obviously much easier, because in The Hague we really had to start from scratch. In Extra City, the exhibition from Stroom became adapted to the space.
WD: Both the space and the public are different. In Antwerp, to keep ourselves going in a sense, we not only readapted the show to the space but also added a discursive programme that is quite exceptional. The five main themes of the show are ‘performed’ on five evenings during the exhibition. Also, Luc Deleu produced a new piece for the show that to me is indicative of his practice. As orbanistic projects, ‘Floating University’ and ‘Academical Tour’ are both reflections about ways of navigating on a global level and the implications of travelling around the world. The intellectual exercise in the case of the university is that students are granted the opportunity to travel around the globe while they’re getting university education. ‘Academical Tour’ consists of a tour during one academic year, in all major ports worldwide.